Message from the Dean

John M. Staudenmaier, S.J.,

The Highlighter & Laureate, Winter 2002

John M. Staudenmaier, S.J., Ph.D. teaches the history of America, Detroit, technology, advertising, labor and capitalism. Currently, he is studying Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company. Staudenmaier is author of Technology's Storytellers: Reweaving the Human Fabric, as well as articles and book reviews in his field of study. He is also editor of Technology & Culture. He has held numerous scholarly appointments, most recently the Gasson Chair at Boston College. He holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from St. Louis University and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. His home page is here.


How I began thinking about “the Holy Dark”

Years ago while teaching history of U. S. technology here at the University, I developed an “1880 to the present” survey course. To set up the historical and technical material, I asked students to imagine the technology as a peculiar choice made by a peculiar human culture. “Why would anyone think it is a good idea to invest in ... (railroads c. 1880, clocks, electricity, nuclear weapons, etc)?” From those discussions emerged a powerful question about 24-hour access to bright light. Why would anyone want to lose what night time always brought to people—a time when most work was more or less impossible, a time for contemplation and intimacy and ... SLEEP!

Response in class was so interesting, that I got more interested. Eventually, the “holy dark” grew to be the core of a lecture I then began to give for different occasions. It’s since been published in a book of conference presentations as “Denying the Holy Dark: The Enlightenment Ideal and the European Mystical Tradition,” in Leo Marx and Bruce Mazlish eds. Progress: Fact or Illusion?

In 1999, I was interviewed about “the holy dark” concept for the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus newsletter. Below are brief excerpts. One explains the concept of “the holy dark”, and the other explains how we all can embrace the holy dark in our own lives. For the full article, click here.

Excerpt: "The Holy Dark is what I call a part of the day that every generation in human history experienced until the early part of this century, at which time the advent of electric lights changed our world,” Fr. Staudenmaier says. “Until then, when darkness came, we ceased our daily strategic work (business and other activities that fill the hours of natural light). We experienced a whole frame of time for non-strategic activities.”

These activities included such things as prayer, rest, reflection, storytelling, and other events conducted alone, in couples, or in small groups.

“We had time for these things. We enjoyed that time. It was an essential part of our lives that helped us in the forming of our selves and our relationships,” he says.

Three ways to make time for the Holy Dark

Rebuilding a piece of the Holy Dark in your life can be enjoyable and enlightening. Here are three suggestions from Fr. John Staudenmaier, S.J. for getting started.

  1. Set aside time for unimportant storytelling. People starve to be heard and hear others on simple levels. If you come home from work and tell your family you’ve got four months to live, that’s an important story and chances are you’ll get heard. But unimportant stories, like the one about the jerk who cut you off on the freeway, need to get told too. However, due to the pace at which we live, they usually go untold. By setting aside time for unimportant stories, we effectively alter the pace of the day. In that specified time, nothing interrupts you and the people important to you from telling unimportant stories - no electronic interruptions of any kind, no planning sessions, and no analysis. Time is for storytelling and storytelling only.

  2. Fast from electricity. This is not as radical as it sounds. Just as you might fast from an evening meal, give up electricity for a night. Don’t go out. Have people over, if you want, but no electric lights, phone calls, computers, or other electrical devices. Leave your thermostat on, of course, and don’t unplug your refrigerator, but no fair opening the door and reading by the light either. What happens is you stick together because it’s no fun to be alone in the dark. What can you do in the dim light of a candle or two? You can have a really playful, receptive, restful night. You can tell stories. You can sing. You can eat and drink. You can play games. You tend to go to bed earlier, and you’re more relaxed when you do because you haven’t been hyped up by all the electronic components in your life. So, you sleep better. I would add a little time prior to sleep for contemplative, reflective prayer, which is simply a variant of storytelling and listening. In prayer you permit the stories of your life to get said at whatever pace they emerge in a frame that is sacred and present.

  3. Be open to grief and surprises. Grief is a slippery place for westerners, because it is not a strategic act with a clear purpose. We are educated to believe that strategic is the real adult mode. In times of grief, such as a lost marriage or a death, the tendency is to slide into analysis or strategic questions geared toward shedding the grief. Instead, take time to stay in sorrow when it is warranted. If you’re going to love, you have to grieve. Otherwise you will cheat on the loving to protect yourself from sorrow. We often will employ a wall of downfield blockers to protect ourselves against sorrows and future disappointments at various levels. Don’t toss the scout motto completely. Car and health insurance, for example, are not bad things. However, trying to arrange the future in order to be prepared in advance for every detail or possible outcome can be enormously exhausting and time consuming. It’s terrible for personal relationships and pretty bad for your prayer life too.




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